What Is It?
Recognized around the globe for its fresh and heady fragrance, the lavender plant (Lavendula angustifolia), a flowering evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region, also boasts a long history in herbal healing.
Romans scented their baths with it (in fact lavare means to wash in Latin), and the Tibetans still make an edible lavender butter to use as part of a traditional treatment for nervous disorders. Today, the essential oil of lavender is widely used across Europe–both topically and internally–for a host of ills, from anxiety to sunburn.
Various Lavendula species have been used medicinally, not just L. angustifolia (sometimes referred to as L. spica or L. officinalis). Also popular are L. latifolia (spike lavender) and L. pubescens. A hybrid of true lavender and spike lavender–Lavandin, or L. hybrida–is also widely used; while it produces almost twice as much oil as the other lavender species, it’s not as fragrant.
For packaging purposes, the fresh flowering tops and stalks of the lavender plant are collected and dried, and the essential oil distilled from them by various methods. Countless soaps, perfumes, and a potpourri of commercial products also draw on the appeal of lavender’s signature scent.
In the past several decades, researchers have put the lavender flower and its extracts under the microscope with exciting results. One extract (perillyl alcohol, a distillate of L. angustifolia) is being studied for preventing and treating various cancers (breast, ovarian, pancreatic, liver, prostate). Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) found that rats given this extract experienced a reversal in the growth of advanced mammary tumors.
Other preliminary reports have shown that parts of the flower might help lower both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. And a 1998 clinical trial in Scotland indicated that lavender oil might slow hair loss (alopecia areata); much better results were seen in participants who rubbed a blend of lavender and other essential oils (thyme, rosemary, and cedarwood) into the affected area than did those who only used a placebo oil.
In addition, lavender tea is popular in many parts of Europe for treating appetite loss, stomach upset, and intestinal gas pain. It’s not clear how lavender works for these ailments, but German health officials have declared it effective.
Specifically, lavender may help to:
Treat sunburn and minor cuts and scrapes. The aromatic lavender flower has natural antiseptic and astringent properties that folk healers recognized centuries ago. Applied topically, lavender can soothe and protect sunburned skin and possibly prevent infection in blisters that often accompany more severe sunburns. Cool compresses soaked in strong lavender tea promote healing for sunburns as well as other minor skin problems. The lavender tea fights germs and tightens the skin, protecting it from further damage and encouraging healing.
Counter insomnia and promote restful sleep. In Germany, a tea made from dried lavender flowers is an officially recognized remedy for restlessness and difficulty sleeping. Both animal research and human studies indicate that lavender’s sedative qualities are real. Experiments in mice have shown that lavender can slow the central nervous system, calm motor activity, counter the stimulant effect of caffeine, and boost the narcotic effects of certain drugs.
In one of the most interesting human studies so far, four nursing home patients with sleep problems found that they could sleep more soundly, and for a longer time, when the rooms were perfumed with lavender and lavender oil. Benefits were particularly notable (and enhanced) when the participants also took their regular sleep medications. The study was recently published in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal.
And in another small study published in 1991, researchers tracked brain wave measurements in participants who inhaled lavender oil. They found that this inhalation could promote a level of sedation and relaxation comparable to certain prescription medications. More investigation is needed to learn if lavender acts directly on the human nervous system and to determine just how smelling a scent translates into physical changes in the body.
Relieve nervous tension and lift mild depression. Although research is somewhat limited, lavender’s calming effects are famous. Massage therapists are known to add a few drops of lavender oil to a neutral carrier oil (almond, jojoba, or grapeseed) to enhance the relaxing effect of a total body massage.
In aromatherapy, the distilled essential oil of lavender is widely recommended as a remedy for depressed mood, fatigue, stress, nervous tension, and anxiety. At the University of Miami, a small study reported in 1998 found that after three minutes of lavender aromatherapy, participants appeared more drowsy, less depressed, and more relaxed. In an unexpected finding, the study also noted that individuals could even complete simple math problems faster and more accurately after aromatherapy than before.
Note: Lavender has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Lavender.
–To make a tea, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried lavender flowers to 1 cup (8 ounces) of hot (but not boiling) water. Steep for five to 10 minutes, then strain. Drink as needed.
–Alternatively, try eating a sugar cube laced with a maximum of four drops of the essential lavender oil.
For sunburn: Twice a day, apply cool compresses soaked in lavender tea, and then gently rub in a few drops of lavender oil that you have mixed with 1/2 ounce of almond oil (or another neutral oil). Alternatively, add a few drops of the oil to a cool bath.
For cuts, scrapes, and other minor skin wounds: When treating a cut or scrape, dab 1 or 2 drops of lavender oil on the wound two or three times a day, but only after thoroughly cleaning the wound and waiting for the bleeding to stop. You can also apply lavender tea compresses or add a few drops of lavender oil to a cool bath.
For a relaxing bath to promote sleep (treat insomnia): Add several drops of lavender oil to the warm water.
For nervous tension and mild depression: Drink a cup of lavender tea three or four times a day as needed. Excessive use, however, can cause drowsiness.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Lavender, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
In aromatherapy, diffusers (which spray particles of the oil into the air), fragrant baths, and potpourris containing lavender are quite popular. The amounts of essential oil of lavender needed in aromatherapy preparations are usually quite small. For an aromatherapy bath, simply add 5 to7 drops of the oil to the water. For a massage, use the same number of drops per tablespoonful of a neutral carrier oil (like almond, jojoba, or grapeseed).
Store lavender oil in a dark, dry place, in a closed container made of a material other than plastic.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with lavender or lavender oil.
Possible Side Effects
There are no known side effects or contraindications to lavender tea or oil. In rare cases, however, lavender oil can cause an allergic skin reaction.
Given lavender’s apparent sedative properties, take care when mixing the herb with known sedatives, such as tranquilizers, painkillers, or alcohol.
Because lavender does work to relieve anxiety, it’s possible that using an excessive amount could cause drowsiness.
Cuts and Scrapes Dab on wound 2 or 3 times a day as alternative to aloe vera.
Earache Gently dab on to the external ear.
Sunburn For mild burns: Add 10 drops essential oil to a cool bath and soak for 30 minutes. Use with chamomile oil.
For more serious burns: Mix a few drops essential oil with 1/2 ounce almond oil (or other neutral oil) and apply to skin twice a day; use with chamomile oil.
David Edelberg, MD